Thought Leadership

Precise or random?

By Colin Walls

A few years ago, when my partner and I were just getting to know one another, she used to jokingly call me “Mr Precision”. She had the perception that I liked things “just right”. Up to a point, she was correct. In many aspects of life, I do like things to be tidy. I proof read and spell check emails, for example. I even capitalize and punctuate text messages. I do like stuff to have a “home” and for things to be put away accordingly. I dislike tidying and try to avoid having to do it by not “untidying”.

Over time, as we have become used to one anothers ways of living. She has come to realize that there are aspects of my life that are messy and somewhat random. And I have realized that, although she is apparently untidy and is for ever losing things and leaving stuff behind, she does have a strong need for order is certain specific matters. This started me wondering whether there is a balance between precision and randomness in all of us …

I have been giving some thought to this orderliness factor and I have found a few examples of how I have contradictory motivations:

I like maps. Seeing the carefully organized representation of the town/landscape gives me a lot of pleasure. When I am flying, I really like watching the progress of the aircraft on the “moving map” display. I regard GPS technology as about the closest we have to science fiction come true. But, having said this, if I am visiting a new city and want to just explore, I tend not to follow a map at all. I will get some general directions and then allow myself to get lost [as long as am confident that I will have some way to find my hotel again!].

On a previous occasion, I wrote about my penchant for live music. Years ago, I liked “progressive rock”, where all the music was created, with absolute precision, in the studio. Now I prefer the performance to be imperfect, which shows that human beings are involved and gives it “soul”. I can still gain great pleasure from a musician who plays an intricate piece perfectly or who always hits the exact note. But, you know that squeaking sound as a guitarist runs their finger down a string? I just think that adds to the pleasure instead of distracting from music itself.

The last example might imply that, over the years, I have gradually moved from “order” to “random”, but it is not as simple as that. I am not a big games player, having almost no knowledge of computer games or consoles, but, since my teens, I have always enjoyed pinball. When I started playing in the mid-1970s, pinball was already on a decline. Nowadays, sadly, coming across a machine is a rare treat. The attraction of the game, for me, is the precision of all the working parts (if the machine is in good condition) combined with the apparent randomness of the complex physics that govern the movement of the ball. It is far from totally random, as a skilled/experienced player can always do better than a beginner. I have often tried computer simulations of pinball, but they are not the same as the real thing. The closest was from Microsoft, which I may still have somewhere – I wonder if it runs under Windows 7? In the 1980s I bought a machine (Bally “Bon Voyage”), which I enjoyed for a couple of years, but they take up a lot room in a modern house. As my current house is quite spacious, I am giving thought to the idea of owning a machine again. I just need to assess the view of those I share my life with, who might think that I am getting a little random …


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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at